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Fail Upwards: Failure Is the Key to Success

We are going to talk a lot about failure here. There is a very good reason for that. If you don’t know how to fail, then you don’t know how to succeed. Interviewers, especially in a job recruiting context, nearly universally ask you to speak about a past failure, mistake, setback, challenge, piece of constructive feedback, or negative experience. They want to know what went wrong, how you handled it, and most importantly, how you recovered. This is important to them because whatever you seek to do next in your career will require you to learn. Learning happens best when we try, make mistakes, readjust, and make new choices based on a clearer awareness of reality that comes from firsthand experience. Most of us learn by doing. And some of that doing will end in failure.

If the word “failure” sends a chill up your spine or brings a dark shadow to your mood, it’s time to start thinking about it differently. You need to adopt the perspective that failure is your teacher and your friend, not your enemy. Your career destiny will truly be in your own hands when you are no longer afraid to fail. An easy and big step in the right direction is to start cataloging important failures and then recording the lessons they taught you. So get out a sheet of paper and divide it in half.

Failure What I learned as a result
  1. Client presentation went badly
  2. Finished Excel model too late
  3. Boss didn’t buy into my idea
  • Always prepare in advance and practice out loud
  • Get manager input at each stage, not just at the end
  • Use more data-based research to persuade her next time

These are very simplistic examples – yours should be much more specific and detailed. Each failure probably conferred multiple valuable lessons. List at least six or seven failures and the corollary learnings. If it’s hard to get started, going back to the distant past can be easier. Remember that geometry test in 10th grade that you failed, when you ran for class president at age 11 and failed, that big swim meet when you placed last? Start with the failures that no longer have the barb of regret attached. But eventually you will need to look at the painful ones too. Those will actually be the most important to unlocking your potential for success. Stay tuned to this weekly series for tips about how to fail successfully and convert disappointments into stepping stones for a remarkable career.


June 21, 2014

Growth Mindset

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